And yet one senses a fluttery uncertainty on the Democratic side—induced,
I suspect, by the prospect of another nefarious Karl Rove campaign. This is
a legitimate fear. Rove has shown a positive genius for organizing campaigns
around poisonous trivia. He will question the patriotism of Democrats (and,
once again, be aided by those on the noisome left who believe that the U.S.
is a malignant, imperialistic force in the world). He will deploy an ugly,
stone-throwing distortion of Christian "values," especially against those
Democrats who choose not to discriminate against homosexuals. And if things
get really desperate, he will play the race card, as Republicans have ever
since they sided against the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The inevitability of race as a subliminal issue in the campaign became
obvious as I watched House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, the personification
of fluttery uncertainty, trying to defend Representative John Conyers on
Meet the Press a few weeks ago. Conyers will be chairman of the Judiciary
Committee if the Democrats win control of the House in November, and he has
already threatened impeachment hearings against President Bush. This is one
of the few scenarios that might rouse the demoralized Republican base from
its torpor. It is also likely to alienate independents, who are sick of the
hyperpartisanship in Washington and will be less likely to vote for
Democrats if the party is emphasizing witch hunts instead of substantive
policies. But the ugly truth is that Conyers is a twofer: in addition to
being foolishly incendiary, he is an African American of a certain age and
ideology, easily stereotyped by Republicans. He is one of the ancient band
of left-liberals who grew up in the angry hothouse of inner-city,
racial-preference politics in the 1960s, a group "more likely to cry
'racism' and 'victimization' than the new generation of black politicians,"
a member of the Congressional Black Caucus told me.
The Republicans will not be so crude as to mention Conyers' race; they
will simply paint him as an extremist and show his face in negative ads. Nor
is Conyers likely to be the only target. We'll probably be seeing a lot of
two other potential African-American committee chairmen: Charles Rangel of
New York and Alcee Hastings of Florida.
Rangel would be one of the most powerful Democrats in the new Congress,
chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He is regarded as more
mainstream than Conyers, well versed in tax and entitlement policies, but he
has had an unfortunate tendency to shoot off his mouth in the past. He has
questioned interracial adoption, and has compared colleagues who opposed tax
breaks for minority broadcasters to Hitler. After Hurricane Katrina, Rangel
compared Bush to Bull Connor, the public-safety commissioner of Birmingham,
Ala., who attacked peaceful civil rights marchers with dogs and fire hoses
in the 1960s.
In a way, Hastings, who would become chairman of the House Intelligence
Committee, is the most problematic of all. He is a former federal judge who
was indicted in 1981 for influence peddling, acquitted on all counts, then
impeached and removed from his judgeship by the Congress. In 1992 he ran for
Congress himself and, improbably, won. It is an open secret that Pelosi has
chosen Hastings to replace the respected and experienced Jane Harman as the
ranking Democrat on the committee. This was a questionable decision even
before it became apparent that the Democrats might win the Congress; now
it's a devastating negative ad waiting to happen: "Why do the Democrats want
to put an impeached judge in charge of your national security?"
Conyers and Rangel are embarrassments, but there is nothing the Democrats
can do about them—and they are certainly no more objectionable than any
number of right-wing extremists who fester in Congress. But it's not too
late for Hastings to remove himself from the line of fire and make clear his
support for Harman as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.